Canterbury Week at Calicut

There have been plenty of Englishmen over the years, especially towards the start of the 20th century, narrating mostly interesting, sometimes short but usually tall tales of Calicut, depending on or for that matter directly proportional to the number of mugs of beer they have ingested. A large number of them, and you will recognize many a name in the annals of Malabar history, came to India not as part of the East India Company or as soldiers or administrators, but as planters and businessmen. Many of them spent years in the salubrious hilly Wynaad region not so far of Calicut, working in what we know as ‘the estates. I myself was born near one of them and my parents spent some of their happiest years in those estates’. As a child and all through the years when my father was alive, I have seen that gleam of happiness as the topic of discussion veered off to the estates and he slid back in his mind to the hills on the Ghats bordering Mysore and Tamilnadu, where he worked as a doctor. Be it Mango range, Chundale, Hassan, Murugali, Ripon, Anamalai or Talapuzha, he used to tell us about the clubs and the British and their way of life. I myself recall seeing tennis courts and billiards tables and for that matter a club with a bar for the first time where all the officers lounged after a good game. But let me not reminiscence, and get to the point which is a little about a most curious festival named the Canterbury week in Calicut. Two things drew me into the story, one the background provided by S Muthiah in the Hindu (I really enjoy reading his articles now and then) and second of course my own love for cricket. The game still catches India by the throat whenever it is played and though India is not doing well at all down under, there is always hope in the mind of the Indian cricket fan that the in the mind of the modern day Indian gladiators fighting away in the bowls where hundreds of thousands watch, the core animal instinct will take over and India will win those snarling fights between bat and ball, the slangers and the slanged…

But before we get to the planters and estates in Wynad & Calicut, we should get a feel for what Canterbury week itself is… There is none better than the article by Patrick Collins to get the real feel of it in Kent, and you can find it in the Shorter Wisden 2011 – a collection of articles, but I will give you short idea of it as the text and prose go by…

As you can imagine, this is held in Canterbury which is in the beautiful county of Kent in Britain, famed for a lovely cathedral and also an annual cricket festival, first held in 1842, during which period cricket consisting of two matches with Kent was played daily on the St. Lawrence Ground, the head-quarters of the Kent County Cricket Club. They also have more festive activities like a ladies day where hats and fashion are exhibited and pretty lassies like Bonnie (in black) in the picture below win the contest(2011) while a lot of interested men wander around and gape or ogle… As somebody said, the week of all weeks in the cricketing season is this, annually held in August on the St. Lawrence ground at Canterbury. As a Cricket County gathering of all classes, from Peer to Peasant, it never had an equal, and as a Cricket week played out by the most eminent Amateurs and Professionals in the country, it is far away beyond rivalry.

Of course cricket is the main fare – and it is only in England and its erstwhile colonies of the past that the attack and defense of three stumps becomes sufficiently popular to attract massive crowds and people marvel at the two weapons (and their wielders), the small wooden bat and a smaller ball fondly called the cherry that can at times, break your skull if not properly attired. But I will not meander about explaining the rules of the game, and will only pity those who do not know of or understand this otherwise splendid way of spending a large amount of time doing nothing but exercising the mind and eyes…As an oldtimer CB wrote - Eminently sociable, and unlike many other sports in which strength and dexterity are twin essentials, it requires no special qualifications, either mental or physical, while it possesses the merit of promoting the friendly intercourse of all classes—an object which becomes more and more practical as civilisation advances…. And as Charles dickens said in his periodical ‘All the year round’ - The cricketer's life is certainly the most purely enjoyable which any young man could lead. Is there any week in England, or in the world, like the Canterbury week? It is of course overcrowded with amusements of every kind—balls, dinners, private theatricals, and what not……..

So the Canterbury week, continuing in the words of CB (Field Quarterly 1870) was………. So far back as 1840 the ancient city of Canterbury became the nucleus of Kentish cricket. At that time thousands of persons visited the Beverley ground to witness the exploits of the chieftains of England, and, truth to speak, better elevens and more satisfactory matches were never produced. The "Canterbury week " soon became "a great fact," and, in addition to sports in the sunshine, something was deemed necessary to beguile the evening hours, and for this purpose "a company ", chiefly brethren of the bat was formed, and thus the cricket and theatrical element were agreeably embodied. From these sources of amusement others sprang, and for nearly thirty years their popularity has suffered no eclipse. In fact, Canterbury is never seen to greater advantage than on occasions like “the week." Its silence is in a special sense broken by the footstep of the antiquarian; no city is richer in historical memories, and a grand array of remarkable events suggested by crumbling monuments meet the eye at every turn. The St. Lawrence Ground is unsurpassed by beauty of situation, a rich carpet of turf, as refreshing to the eye of the spectator as pleasing to that of the cricketer, ample in its means of support and judgment of disposal, and always honoured by a large sprinkle of soft-eyed beauties grouped under commodious tents or the sylvan shade of many a wide-spreading tree.

The week was started in 1842 as a proposal by one Lord Bessborough and Sir Henry de Bathe and Sir Charles Taylor ( no clue who these personnel were), and they went on to suggest that to meet the expenses, there should be side activities like fairs and balls..Mr Collins attested in his article that the event rather than the cricket provided greater amusement, as you may have read already.

Well, the British came to Malabar, then they ruled over it and pretty soon the planters came and soon after there was a gold rush which I wrote about earlier. The early British planters found a special situation, very different from Kent, Malabar of course had a lot of lush foliage; good soil, right planting temperature and weather all right, but also unwelcome pests like mosquitoes, wild animals (elephants, tigers and the such) and torrential rain during the monsoon period. As they went around planting rubber, tea, coffee and so on, they also found ways to have a bit of amusement both in the hills and the plain of Calicut which was some 30 miles away.

As a gentleman of the time puts it - John Bull brought his idiosyncrasies to Malabar too, specifically Calicut in this case, which is his love for Cricket. And what better than to have a Canterbury week in Calicut? Thus came about the CW during the 1870’s and was conducted with regularity through 1920 where Calicut hosted the Canterbury week. More specific information of the event itself is presently scarce and anybody who can provide more dope is welcome to email me.

So as the lean period came by, the planters took some days off and came down the ghats to Calicut to spend a week on fun and frolic, perhaps on the MCC, Mananchira and Zamorin’s school grounds of those days as they stayed in the club off the beach front. The week was aptly called the ‘Canterbury week of Calicut’. The only difference was that while the Kent Canterbury week welcomed a mixing of higher and lower class people of the period, the one in Calicut was primarily for the British gentry…but then again it is a time long gone…we will not get political about this now…

Cricket was played often at Calicut and many a fixture graced the MCC grounds. WKM Langley, writing about the early days of cricket in the hills says, The Wynaad-Calicut annual fixture, always played in Calicut, was started in 1910. But the big event in Calicut was always the Canterbury week. They had a cricket match of course, horse racing, a dance ball and a fair. All this except the cricket itself is depicted in the picture below (click to enlarge)

The pictures tell the story, they show hat clad Englishmen coming to the Planters club on the Calicut Beach early in the morning, riding the bullock cart through the night, and of course with many ladies and the pomp, they have to look their best so the first call of the day is to get their hair cut (look at the guy’s hair sticking out) and barbers are pulled out of their beds, struggling. Looking at the picture - makes me a little confused as to whether the artist was really in Calicut, for that kind of a Chaprasi and barber dress is unusual for Calicut, but perhaps it was so.

Cut to another scene where you find bare bodied people scrubbing and polishing the wooden dance floor and getting the punkah rope right for the evening functions and dances, perhaps at the beach club, not so far from the MCC or Mananchira grounds. The painting as such is more focused on the horse race where obviously betting is the norm and horses are well prepared, their hoofs pared to get the regulation height right and smart looking with the right tail length and so on..You can see games like the man in the tub where you take a shy at his head and he ducks in time. But still the onlookers, mainly the locals do not look attired as in Calicut, so it is possible that the artist made this sketch without seeing the scene, but hearing descriptions from another. And in the final picture you can see more carts rushing to the horse race location, and the carts certainly look interesting though of non Calicut extract. But it provides you ample options for creating an imaginary scene in your mind. Juxtapose it with the annual exhibitions in Calicut and you will feel the right ambience..

The brief write-up says, “John Bull, as everyone knows, is fond of transporting his insular amusements to every part of the globe, frigid or torrid, whither business summons him; and so we find an imitation “Canterbury Week” established in a town only eleven degrees from the equator. There is a gay time in Calicut once a year during the slack season, when the coffee planters on the Wynaad Hills have no work to do, and are waiting for their crops to ripen. Then they all congregate in Calicut and for one week only make the most of their time by having races, balls and other excitements.”

The Canterbury week though a jolly time was not without its dark moments, there is of course the story of Ramaswamay Chetty, a well to do ICS employee, the first native covenanted civilian, assistant magistrate of Palghat (story recounted by Isaac Tyrell in his Antipodes) who was virtually British in manners and actions, food and religion, after being educated there, possibly having lost caste after going to England, and living like a Brit. At Palghat the local British did not take kindly to a native acting English and made his life miserable, but he managed to get along eventually. Unfortunately it continued and he was snubbed at the Calicut Canterbury week by a planter and this was perhaps the last straw, for Chetty perhaps decided to take his own life( or so they said), and he was found dead, shot in the head after a last day of frolic.

But well, much more cricket was played in Calicut in those days and EA Cowdrey used to play for Calicut and Wynad. EAC was of course the father of the illustrious M Colin Cowdrey about whom Cricket buffs are well aware of and R Guha had written about. Colin as you may know was born in Bangalore, EAC had the boys delivery arranged in a Bangalore hospital and not in Chundale, for he wanted better medical attention for his wife.

Historic alleys – The Malabar Gold Rush
S Muthiah articles 1 & 2
Picture from Graphic June 15, 1889 , Check here for larger sections

A little about John Bull – Who was he?

Some people might wonder who the John Bull I mentioned is. Well like Uncle Sam personifies USA, John Bull personifies Britain. I will borrow further text from Wikipedia to explain - He is usually depicted as a stout, middle-aged, country dwelling, jolly, matter-of-fact man. Starting in the 1760s, Bull was portrayed as an Anglo-Saxon country dweller.He is almost always depicted in a buff-coloured waistcoat and a simple frock coat (in the past Navy blue, but more recently with the Union Jack colours). Britannia, or a lion, is sometimes used as an alternative in some editorial cartoons.

As a literary figure, John Bull is well-intentioned, frustrated, full of common sense, and entirely of native country stock. Unlike Uncle Sam later, he is not a figure of authority but rather a yeoman who prefers his small beer and domestic peace, possessed of neither patriarchal power nor heroic defiance. He also wears a low topper (sometimes called a John Bull topper) on his head and is often accompanied by a bulldog… he is a plain, downright, matter-of-fact fellow, with much less of poetry about him than rich prose. There is little of romance in his nature, but a vast deal of a strong natural feeling. He excels in humour more than in wit; is jolly rather than gay; melancholy rather than morose; can easily be moved to a sudden tear or surprised into a broad laugh; but he loathes sentiment and has no turn for light pleasantry. He is a boon companion, if you allow him to have his humour and to talk about himself; and he will stand by a friend in a quarrel with life and purse, however soundly he may be cudgelled."


windwheel said...

re= Ramaswamy Chetty- I've been unable to confirm that he was an ICS officer- Tyrell says he won over the English, including the ladies, and that he himself had been a good friend of the man and had thought he'd have been an ornament to the Service. Tyrell, in connection with another suicide- a Judge caught up in a messy divorce case- dwells upon the manner in which overwork can unbalance a man's mind.
I wonder whether there are any other sources about the unfortunate Chetty?

Happy Kitten said...

Brought me sweet memories of bygone days....

The Britishers must have been such homesick fellows.... but even if one chides them for some ills, they did transform a few places really well, even if it was for their needs. Even here in Kuwait, the Ahmadi area where the major oil companies exist still remains the most beautiful..

Maddy said...

thanks windwheel..
the only reference i have is the page 242 from antipodes where he confirms that Chetty was a covenanted officer and would have been a jewel of the ICS had he lived longer.

Maddy said...

thanks HK..
just look at Kuwait or Dubai, how many Malayali links do you see created, restaurants and so on..the brits did not have the luxury of fast communication in those days